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Home > Publications > Quill > From news to novels


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Monday, August 25, 2008
From news to novels

Tom Hallman, Jr.

Are there moments in your day when you turn in yet another story about the recent city council meeting and fantasize about one day writing a novel?

Every newsroom has more than a few dreamers. I count myself as part of that group. But after years of talking about it, I’ve never been able to get beyond some half-baked outline that’s never amounted to anything.

I have a million excuses: not enough time, need an office to write in or a new laptop. That’s why I’m so impressed with what Mike Doogan has managed to accomplish. At age 60 — having never specialized in long-form narrative journalism — Doogan has three published books to his credit and is working on his fourth. All were published by Putnam. Go to your book store and buy one.

There’s an inspirational lesson here for all of us. Doogan reminds us that writing is writing, and the skills you practice each day when you churn out another story can be used to make the leap to fiction — but only if you’re willing to do the hard work. Many writers say they want to try narrative but come up with their own list of excuses: no time, editor won’t give me the space, can’t find a good idea.

I stumbled over Doogan’s first book, “Lost Angel,” a few years ago. I picked it up at the store, read the first few paragraphs and was hooked. Doogan knows how to tell a story and create a believable, multidimensional character named Nik Kane. It turned out I wasn’t the only one impressed. In 2007, “Lost Angel” was nominated for the 2007 Shamus Award for the Best First Novel by the Private Eye Writers of America.

So who was this guy? I did a little research and was even more intrigued when I learned about Doogan’s background. He wasn’t some highfalutin author. He was one of us: a working journalist. It turned out that Doogan, a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, got an itch to write a book. Unlike the rest of us, he did something about it.

“As journalists we never talk about writing,” Doogan told me over the phone. “My job was writing a 600-word column. Give me 600 words, and I could write about anything in the world. But I couldn’t write anything over 700 words.”

One day, Doogan said, he got in a “beef” with an editor and realized the newspaper job was no longer fun. He was burned out and wanted to do something about it. Instead of grumbling for the rest of his career, he decided to write a book.

He considered nonfiction but couldn’t devote the time to research. He still had to work at the paper. So he settled on fiction. As a young man he’d read mysteries, liked them and understood the structure. He sat down, wrote a manuscript and sent it out on the circuit. It wasn’t published, but he got an agent. He started a second manuscript, this time applying the skills he’d honed as a working journalist.

“I learned that I was using skills I’d practiced over the years without even thinking about them,” he said. “They’re such a part of us that we forget them.”

Doogan approached his manuscript as a journalist, not as a writer trying to impress an audience.

“Journalism puts the premium on telling a story without the frills,” he said. “There’s a premium to keeping things moving along. There’s no fat. Newspaper readers are looking for a reason to not read. When you don’t have something interesting, they set down the paper and quit. Never sacrifice story for the writing.”

He started writing with discipline, setting his own deadline and acting like his own editor at a daily paper that needs copy. In four months, he had a book. He ended up with a three-book deal based on his manuscript.

When Doogan told me it took him four months, I was stunned. I figured he’d tell me it took a couple of years to pull it off. Doogan’s secret was simple: He didn’t wait for inspiration or the right moment. He put his butt in the chair and kept it there.

“I write 1,000 words a day,” Doogan said. “You do that, and before you know it, you have a book. Not all those words survived each day. I might start over the next day and get rid of all those 1,000 words or just some of them. But every day, I write 1,000 words without fail. I’m a professional writer who’s been doing this for decades. The power of writing comes from the subconscious. The mind works on it when I’m not working on it.”

Doogan said that if he has any advice for the budding fiction writer, it deals with pacing.

“That’s what I most value,” he said. “Because reporters are trained to put the most important fact first, they generally have some trouble telling the story at the pace it requires. I often find myself saying semi-mystical B.S. about things like this, but it’s my view that a story knows how it wants to be told. If you just relax and get out of the way, good things happen.”

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